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Hiding in Plain Sight: A Story of Human Trafficking in Iowa

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Believe it or not, human trafficking touches nearly every town in Iowa; big and small. It’s often hard for people to believe it’s happening in their own communities. Studies show victims in Iowa are typically young girls between 16 and 19 years old.

A woman choosing to go by the name “Amanda” to protect her identity, was trafficked as a young adult and eventually brought to Iowa.

“I would be trapped in hotel rooms, I would be raped, I would be beaten,” she says,

Amanda lived in what she calls “the life”, life while being trafficked, for five years. It was a choice she didn’t make but one she says heroin made for her.

“It changed from fun to having to need them. The ones that were selling the drugs were the ones that brought me into 'the life',” Amanda says.

She was sold for sex on a website called “Backpage," then threatened and forced to go through with the encounters, repeatedly raped, then comforted by her pimp after the abuse. "Amanda” says it was a daily cycle of brainwashing, “I didn`t feel like I was worthy. I had no self-esteem at all. It just went with whatever I was told.”

Retired Criminal Investigator with the Iowa Department of Justice, Mike Ferjak says it’s important not to doubt the validity of human trafficking survivor’s stories.

“It’s just barbaric as it sounds," he says.

Trafficking is known as an intelligence operation that goes widely unnoticed by the general public but the recruitment process to lure young boys and girls into the life of human trafficking happens in plain sight.

Ferjak says victims are recruited at the mall, school or in online chat rooms under a false promise of a dancing or modeling career. Others who are lonely or look out of place are also often preyed on. Once lured in, their picture and description are posted on buyer boards like “Backpage," an advertisement website, then sold in our own backyards.

“When we saw the NCAA tournaments here earlier this year, Polk County saw a 45-percent increase in the number of persons being offered for sale during the time frame of that tournament,” says Ferjak.

He says that same spike happens during the 80/35 music festival, the Downtown Farmer’s Market and even the Iowa State Fair.

“It's not the event itself. They are not trafficking at the State Fair but there are people at the State Fair who for whatever motivation have looked at these pages," he said. "They have made those calls and have made those arrangements and the traffickers are supplying what they want.”

Experts say the average buyer is a middle-aged white man between the age of 30-49. Nearly 75 percent of them are college educated and two-thirds of them have children of their own.

Trafficking is a game of supply and demand and Iowa is in the prime location for it due to interstates 35 and 80.

Compared to surrounding states, Iowa ranks about in the middle of trafficked victims. According to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, there have been 31 cases reported so far this year. That number is down from 36 in 2015. This year, Illinois reportedly has the highest number trafficked victims, 97, while South Dakota has the least, eight.

However, experts say to take these statistics with a grain of salt  because many cases go undocumented.

“We`ve had a couple of survivors who don`t even know how many states they have been in,” says Joy Fopma.

Fopma is the founder of Wings of Refuge in Iowa Falls, a faith-based safe house for victims who have recently come out of human trafficking, not just in Iowa but from across the Midwest.

“You can get a physical body safe but to get the mental and spiritual out of that lifestyle is a whole other process,” says Fopma.

The goal of the program is to help survivors find their hope and self-worth again. That was the case for "Amanda" she spent a lengthy amount of time at Wings of Refuge. She’s now an artist who sells her artwork at a coffee shop in Iowa Falls.

“I'm at a place in my life where I'm getting okay with myself. I love myself and I’m worthy,” she says. “It's amazing compared to what I was living like night a day difference.”

"Still work to be done"

Since 2012, The Iowa Law Enforcement Academy mandates human trafficking training  as a part of its basic curriculum but law enforcement officials say there is still work to be done.

The manpower and funding to constantly analyze buyer boards like “Backpage” isn’t readily available.

“The level of our intelligence in the state of Iowa is very, very good but trafficking moves at lightning speed," says Ferjak. "In order to stay up with it, we need more resources to be devoted to the intelligence part."

Authorities are also working on educating the public about the differences of human trafficking versus prostitution. A paradigm shift Ferjak says is crucial if there is going to be real change.

“Sex trafficking is not prostitution. Sex trafficking is someone who is brought into a circumstance through force, fraud or corrosion and then held there against their will. That is not a situation where anybody made a choice," he said.

"Empower them to make a difference"

The program Teens Against Human Trafficking is a non-profit organization who’s mission is to raise awareness about the issue in Iowa.

The after-school program currently meets in three metro high schools, with plans of expanding to between five and seven schools in Central Iowa by the end of the month.

Program specialist, Shannon Schott says getting young people involved in the movement creates the biggest impact.

“I think it is such a special thing to able to empower them to  be able to make the difference and make them feel like they are capable of making that change," she said.

Schott says the program has helped identify more than 140 children foster care who have been trafficked.

Click here for ways you can get involved with Teens Against Human Trafficking.

The following links are more resources on how you educate yourself and how to report it: